Payin' Dues: Will Porter

Renowned bandleader Will Porter has worked with Chuck Berry, Barbara Lewis, Mary Wells and Percy Sledge. He made his solo debut with 2004’s Happy, produced by southern soul maven Wardell Quezergue, and he teamed with Quezergue again in 2011 for the producer’s last ever session. The result, Tick Tock Tick, is finally being released and features guests Jimmy Haslip, Leo Nocentelli, Dr John, the Womack Brothers and Bettye LaVette.

Your CV is enviable.
My family says I sang before I spoke. I joined the Musicians’ Union at 14 to play sax and sing background in R&B bands – we played Mary Wells, Chuck Berry and James Brown songs. Some years later, I was leading bands for Mary and Chuck and opened some shows for Mr Brown. What a trip. After some years I landed in the Bay Area and started playing piano and singing and forming bands around me. At age 22, I worked with Mary Wells, then became her musical director. I worked with her, on and off, until her death. I also ran bands for Billy Preston, Percy Sledge, Bobby Sheen and others.

My family says I sang before I spoke

And you worked with the legendary Wardell Quezergue and the Womack Brothers on Tick Tock Tick.
At the top of the sessions, Wardell said, “I do not stand for any mess!” He didn’t like to waste time. On this new album, he was completely blind and had everything in his head, visualised. He dictated the whole album. Tracks 10 and 11 he didn’t have ready, and he dictated to the rhythm section in the studio. He was a genius. Then the Womack Brothers were figuring out instant background parts like they’ve been doing for decades and Curtis was wailing his heart out.

Bettye Lavette duets with you on a cover of Dylan’s Make You Feel My Love.
This Dylan song has been cut, badly, by many people. Wardell remembered Bettye’s biggest radio hit, Let Me Down Easy, with lush strings. He always thought in terms of hits, and when he heard a demo of the song, he said, “That’s it! Big strings and one oboe!” He, of course, was right.

Dr John is on the new album–he contributes to your version of his song When The Battle Is Over.
Wardell arranged for Dr John. We met backstage and I mentioned that Wardell was cutting me and that I liked When The Battle Is Over, which he had written for Aretha. He said he himself had never cut it and would I like him to be on it as well. We called Wardell right then.

Tick Tock Tick is out now via Gramofono Sound